Extremadura is a region of Spain.
The autonomous region of Extremadura lies in the south western part of Spain, and borders Castile and Leon in the north, Castile-La Mancha in the east, Andalusia in the south, and Portugal in the west.
Most of Extremadura is made up of vast stretches of plains with an average height of around 350 metres. There are three mountain formations in the region. The Sistema Central in the north, mainly comprises of Gredos sierra, Gata sierra, Francia sierra, Plasencia sierra and Vera sierra.
They are high mountains, some reaching almost 2,000 metres, with deep gorges heading south such as Jaranda, with high mountain passes that include Bejar and Tornavacas. The highest peak in the area is Calvitero that reaches 2,425 metres. The second mountainous area is the central area that is penetrated by the mountains of Toledo, the highest peak of which is Las Villuercas measuring 1,601 metres. The third area in the south of the region belongs to the Sierra Morena mountain range. They are the lowest mountains in the region. The highest peak is Tentudia, at 1,140 metres.
The most notable river valleys include Jerte and Tietar, La Vera and Las Hurdes, as well as Ambroz valley. Two major rivers criss-cross the region and filter the waters from other lesser rivers in the area. The rivers are the Tagus, that travels through Caceres, finally entering Portugal, and the Guadiana, that encompasses all of Badajoz within its basin and heads south, forming a natural border with Portugal.
The rivers in the region of Extremadura are governed by the various reservoirs in the area, that form a vast hydrological network that supplies water for crops, for generating electricity and for general consumption by the inhabitants. Valdecañas, Torrejon-Tagus, Alcantara, Gabriel and Galan are the reservoirs that lie in the Tagus river basin. Cijara, Puerto Peña (Garcia Sola), Orellana and La Serena are some of the different reservoirs that can be found in Guadiana's basin. La Serena reservoir, in the river Zujar, is the largest in Spain.
More than twenty towers dominate the historic quarter of Caceres, delimited by Arab walls. Cobbled streets marked by medieval, fortified homes and Renaissance palaces make up the most beautiful sceneries in this beautiful city, which was declared World Heritage in 1986 and Third Best Preserved Monumental Town of Europe in 1968.
The city of Caceres was founded by the Romans in 34 B.C., under the name of Norba Caesariana. But it wasn't until the arrival of the Arabs in the 12th century that the city would experience a period of splendour. A century later, the city would fall into Christian hands, after being reconquered by King Alfonso IX of Leon. In the 15th century, queen Isabel the Catholic put an end to the continuous fights over the control of power among noblemen by cutting off the top of the towers that crowned their fortified homes. Henceforth, a period of economic prosperity began in the city, which also benefited greatly from its active role in the Discovery of America. The walled precinct of Caceres, mostly Almohad, still preserves several medieval towers, such as the towers of Bujaco, Yedra and Horno, built in the 12th century. The city within the confines of the wall
The Arco de la Estrella (Arch of the Star), lets you inside the walled enclosure. This gate, built by Manuel de Lara Churriguera, was built in the 18th century to replace the previous medieval gate "Puerta Nueva", (New Gate).
Once inside the medieval quarter, there are palaces and ancestral homes at every step, still exhibiting their families' coats of arms.Plaza de Santa María is surrounded by several palaces. One of them is the Palace of Carvajal, built between the 15th and 16th centuries and later restored in the second half of the 20th. Inside it conceals a picturesque Renaissance courtyard, whose centre is taken by millenary fig tree. Next to the palace, a circular tower still stands, it was built by the Arabs back in the 12th century. The palace presently houses the Regional Board of Crafts and Tourism.
Also surrounding the square is the Palace of Mayoralgo (16th century), the biggest in the city, with an interior patio lined with pointed brick arches. On the same area is the Episcopal Palace, which has a fifteenth-century façade with foiled arches and a Renaissance front with dressed keystones.
The compound is dominated by the Procathedral of Santa María, a sixteenth-century Gothic building. The temple has three naves with orgive vaults. Note the plateresque high reredos and choir stalls. They were made by Guillén Ferrant and Roque Balduque, with cedar wood and include valuable sculptures and relieves. In the side chapels, in addition to the Baroque sarcophagi and reredos, note the image of the Christ of Blazquez, also named "the Black Christ", who, according to traditional tales, used to kill those who dared to look at it, or touch it.
The House of Cáceres-Ovando, built in the 15th century, is located in the neighbouring square of San Pablo. Its semidetached Tower of Cigüeñas is the only one whose crenellations remained intact, pardoned by queen Isabel the Catholic.
But beyond all doubt, one of the most beautiful examples of local architecture in Caceres is the Palace of Golfines de Abajo (from the 15th century), with a gorgeous sixteenth-century plateresque façade and overlapping Gothic and Mudejar elements. The Catholic Monarchs stayed in this noble building during one of their visit to the capital.
The House of Paredes Saavedra, built between the 15th and 16th centuries, is located in the San Mateo Square, along with the House of Lorenzo de Ulloa (15th century) and the Casa de las Veletas (House of the Weather Vanes). This palace was built in the fifteenth century, on top of an ancient Almohad fortress, it was rebuilt at the beginning of the 18th century. The exterior is marked by its beautiful Baroque façade and the pinnacles that crown it, popularly known as weather vanes (veletas). Inside, under the courtyard, the building preserves an ancient reservoir from the old Arab fortress, circa 12th century. Nowadays, the building houses the Regional Museum of Archaeology, which exhibits an interesting collection of artefacts and ethnographic objects that narrate the history of the province.
The church of San Mateo (16th century), with its interesting plateresque façade, is on the square by the same name, occupying the space of the ancient high-mosque.
Beyond the confines of the walls, a magnificent staircase leads to the main square, or Plaza Mayor, which is flanked by numerous towers and the Balbos moat. In the vicinity of the square is the Palace of Godoy (16th century), a Renaissance building with a beautiful corner balcony. Next to this ancestral home is the church of Saint James (Santiago), the temple where the Order of the Friars of Caceres was founded, the predecessor of the Order of Saint James. Among the elements that were added to the Romanesque structure, a reredos by Berruguete stands out.
Located in the path of the Silver Route, or Vía de la Plata, Mérida is heir to a magnificent Roman legacy. The theatre, the amphitheatre and the Temple of Diana make this city —the ancient capital of Roman Lusitania— one of the best preserved archaeological sites in Spain, reason why it was declared World Heritage.
The history of Merida has close ties to the Roman expansion through the Iberian Peninsula. Its foundation as a city took place in 25 B.C., under the rule of Emperor Augustus, from whom the first name of the city, Emérita Augusta, was taken.
There, discharged soldiers from the 5th and 10th Legions settled, after being rewarded by Rome for their participation in the Cantabrian Wars with lands on the fertile plains of the Guadiana River. At the same time, this incipient city had great strategic value, since two different Roman routes met there: the Silver Route (Vía de la Plata), which linked Merida and Astorga and the Roman road that linked Toledo and Lisbon.
Mérida was the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania and it became one of the most flourishing cities of the Empire. Likewise, it was an important religious centre during the first years of the spread of Christianity.
Under Visigothic rule, the city stayed on the centre stage as capital of the kingdom, but this title was later assigned to Toledo. With the arrival of the Arabs, Merida became a fortress, until the Christian King Alfonso IX reconquered the city in the 13th century, when it then became the base for the Military Order of Saint James of the Sword.
The Roman Legacy
The splendorous history of Merida can be observed in the monumental and archaeological ensemble that it keeps, one of the best preserved in Spain.
Thus, the Roman legacy is still present in almost every little corner of town, the Roman Theatre being one of the most emblematic constructions. Erected in the first century B.C., the theatre can seat 6,000 people. The stage is dominated by two stacked rows of columns, ornamented with sculptures of deities and imperial figures. Next to it is the Amphitheatre, a stage where gladiators wrestled with beasts. This building, contemporary with the previous one, preserves some of its original elements, like the grandstands, the box and the gallery.
Both precincts come back to life each summer with the celebration of the Merida Classical Theatre Festival, one of the most important of its kind in Spain.
The Temple of Diana and the Arch of Trajan —one of the gates to the city, rising to a height of 15 metres— are located in the city centre.
On the outskirts, there are ambitious Roman civil projects such as the Roman Bridge, which crosses the Guadiana River. The bridge stands out for its monumental size —800 metres long, with 60 arches— that made it one of the biggest ones in the Empire at the time. It is also quite worth it to mention the Aqueduct of Los Milagros which crossed the Abarregas River and supplied the city with water from the Roman dam of Proserpina, still preserved.
The National Museum of Roman Art, built by Spanish architect, wraps up the journey through Merida's Roman period. Through the more than 36,000 artefacts —all of which were found in Merida and its vicinity— plus the exposed panels, the precinct narrates the history of the city and its Roman legacy and it shows how daily life was at a Roman colony.
Also, a few examples of architecture are left from the Muslim rule. Across from the Guadiana River is the most significant of them all, the Alcazaba (Citadel). The interior of the Arab fortress preserves a Roman aljibe (underground reservoir) which was rebuilt and decorated with Visigothic pilasters.
Attached to this precinct is the Conventual Santiaguista, built during the time that the city was under the jurisdiction of the Knights of the Order of Saint James of the Word. Nowadays, the building is the site of the Extremaduran Government.
Gastronomy and the outskirts
The cuisine from Malaga shares many dishes with the rest of the region, such as the lamb caldereta (a stew made with lamb, onions, garlic and peppers) and Iberian pork products, specially sausages and ham. Other typical dishes include gazpacho (a cold soup made with tomato, peppers, cucumber, garlic, etc.), ajoblanco (another could soup, similar to gazpacho but white, made with garlic, almonds and bread), rabbit and partridge.
Any of the bars and restaurants in Merida serve these and many more delicacies, some of them as appetisers, like pork ears, wild asparagus and cheese. To go with the food, Badajoz offers excellent wines with the label Designation of Origin - Ribera del Guadiana.
When it comes to spending the night, one of the best choices in Merida is the Parador de Turismo, located at the heart of the historic quarter, in an old eighteenth-century convent.
The Extremaduran capital is located on the Vía de la Plata (Silver Route). This road, which was a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages, now takes us to interesting Extremaduran towns such as Zafra, Mérida, Caceres (with a historic quarter that was declared World Heritage) and Plasencia. Not far from this road are the nature reserves of Monfragüe and Cornalvo, with Nature Centres where one can obtain information about the best trails to follow to explore the parks.
Other interesting towns are also found in the vicinity of Merida. To the south is Alange, with a Roman bath and Almendralejo, the capital of the fertile farming region of the Land of Barros. To the east is Medellín, the birthplace of the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, where the remains of an Arab castle are preserved Don Benito, where you can visit the Ethnographic Museum, one of the most important ones in Extremadura and Villanueva de la Serena, with remarkable buildings like the church of Asunción and the Town Hall.
On the bank of the Jerte River, in the Extremaduran province of Caceres, Plasencia has a historic quarter that is a consequence of the city's strategic location along the Silver Route, or Ruta de la Plata. This town was inhabited by Romans and Arabs until the 12th century, when King Alfonso VIII reconquered it. Since the 15th century, the noblemen of the region began to move to Plasencia, defining its current appearance. Palaces, ancestral homes and significant religious buildings make up a unique old quarter. Plasencia's Parador de Turismo (Inn) is located in an old convent, where visitors can enjoy the best food in Caceres in the most spectacular surroundings.
The medieval layout of the city can be seen in the remains of the walls, with some great towers and gates, such as the Sol gate and the Santa Maria postern. In Plasencia's city centre is the main square, Plaza Mayor, a meeting point that comes alive during the celebration of "Martes Mayor", (Shrove Tuesday), Holiday of Tourist Interest. The City Hall is also located in this square. One of the most representative collection of monuments in the city is the one that includes the Old and New Cathedrals. The Old Cathedral follows a Romanesque floor-plan, in spite of being built in the 13th century. Almost all of the European artistic styles arrived to Extremadura after a considerable delay, since it was the border between the Christian and Muslim kingdoms. Thus, while the Romanesque style reached the north of the Peninsula in the 10th-11th centuries, it would not be implemented in this area until the 13th century. The main front of the Old Cathedral, the Chapel of San Pablo and the Virgin of Forgiveness all show the transition between Romanesque and Gothic styles. The New Cathedral has many Gothic and Renaissance elements, like the choir, the vaults and the plateresque fronts. The Cathedral Museum exhibits the sixteenth-century Gothic panel of "Bodas de Caná" (Caná Wedding). Spanish Baroque masters such as Gregorio Fernández and the Brothers Churriguera also left the important mark of their art in the reredos of the cathedral.
The Military Orders of Saint James and Alcántara, of great political significance in these lands, had a great influence on the number of churches found in the city. The churches of San Nicolás, San Martín, San Salvador and San Pedro are the most remarkable. They are Romanesque and Gothic temples built after the 13th century, on top of Muslim constructions.
Palatine architecture is also present in Plasencia. The Palace of Monroy, also known as the Palace of the Two Towers, is a beautiful example of this Romanesque style. Many emblematic figures stayed at this palace, like Fernando the Catholic and Pedro de Alcántara. The Episcopal Palace, located across from the Romanesque gate of the cathedral, exhibits the most typical elements of Spanish Renaissance architecture. The Palace of Carvajal-Girón and the Palace of the Marquis of Mirabel are great examples of Extremaduran plateresque style.
Besides taking a walk through the medieval streets of Plasencia, visit the Ethnographic-Textile Museum "Pérez Enciso", the Hunting Collection at Palace of Mirabel and the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Orchard.
The old convent of Santo Domingo (15th-17th centuries), at the heart of the medieval historic quarter, is the site of the city's Inn, or Parador de Turismo. Located within the confines of Plasencia's ancient walls, this Inn is the perfect place to rest during this journey and to enjoy the magnificent Extremaduran food. Among the chef's suggestions are: potato soup, partridge casserole, lamb loins with honey from the meadows, fig compote from La Vera and Extremaduran "migas" (breadcrumbs with Spanish sausage and bacon). visitors also needs to try some of the excellent products of this land of Plasencia, like mushrooms, pickled vegetables, trout and suckling lamb, either roasted or stewed. Iberian ham from the Extremaduran pasturelands is never missing from the dinner table, nor are the fabulous cheeses from La Serena and the cherries that grow in the Jerte valley, all these products are protected with the label Designation of Origin.
Plasencia, to the north of Caceres, in an excellent starting point for further travelling around Sierra de Gata, Las Hurdes, the valleys of Ambroz and Jerte and the regions of La Vera, Las Villuercas, Los Ibores and Siberia Mountains. This way you can admire the popular mountain-architecture, the slate farmsteads that sit among waterfalls and meanders, gorgeous Jewish quarters such as the one at Hervás, cherry orchards, monumental villas and health resorts like Baños de Montemayor.